It is fitting that America's first great songwriter was born on the Fourth of July. Stephen Foster was born outside of Pittsburgh, PA on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
As a young boy, Foster spent his time playing music and jotting down the melodies that were constantly streaming through his head. His father urged a more practical career, and at age twenty, he tried accounting for one of his brother's companies in Cincinnati. In 1849, he wrote "Oh! Susannah", which became the anthem of the gold rush '49ers. The biggest hit song to that point had sold 5000 copies. "Oh! Susannah" sold 100,000.
"Camptown Races" and "Old Folks at Home" (a.k.a. "Way Down Upon the Swanee River") were also huge hits, but the music industry in the US was in its infancy, and Stephen Foster received a pitifully small fraction of the earnings. The lack of financial success was a big factor in the breakup between Foster and his wife Jane. He wrote "I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" to get her back, but eventually they split up permanently.
Stephen Foster sought success in writing ballads or "parlor songs", but had his biggest hits with minstrel songs. Here, white singers would color their hands and faces with burnt cork and perform in a way that degraded and insulted African Americans. Foster became ashamed of writing for this venue and produced lyrics that would seek to dignify and not denigrate. In the 1850s the tensions over slavery were pulling the country apart. The book Uncle Tom's Cabin was made into a play and Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home" for it.
He moved to New York City but opportunities didn't arise. Early in 1864 ravaged by poverty, alcoholism, and illness, he died at the age of 37. Had he written comparably huge hits today, he would've been worth millions. Stephen Foster became the first musician to be elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.